Kantemir Balagov follows Closeness, his accomplished-but-slight debut feature, with the significantly more ambitious Beanpole, an exploration of the interconnection between national and personal trauma. Loosely adapted from the 1985 book The Unwomanly Face of War by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeievich, Beanpole is set in a Leningrad hospital immediately following the second World War, and surveys the ways in which people attempt to rebuild their lives after they’ve witnessed or committed horrendous acts.
Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a former army nurse whose harrowing experiences serving on the front lines during the Leningrad siege have left severe mental scars. These have manifested in the form of a bizarre psychological condition which causes her to periodically freeze into complete stasis for minutes at a time, and these involuntary moments of paralysis have earned her the cruel nickname ‘beanpole.’ She is not the only one still haunted by the horrors of war, however, as the wards are filled with wounded and dying soldiers; some try gallantly to distract themselves from their experiences, while others are too shaken to be able to foresee a future at all. The most tragic example in the latter type is Stepan, a veteran who has been permanently paralyzed from the neck down, and now begs to be euthanized despite strict laws prohibiting the practice. Amid all this suffering, Iya only seems truly happy when she is with a young boy named Pashka, who she refers to as her son and relies on to inspire a sense of hope in the possibility of establishing positive change.
The cityscape of the devastated Leningrad is rendered via some rigorously researched production design by designer Sergei Ivanov as an otherworldly purgatory trapped between the past and the present; damaged buildings hang over Iya like an oppressive weight — a reminder of the years of world-changing conflict which unfolded in that space. It is within this space that a toxic friendship develops. Iya’s former acquaintance, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who was presumed to be dead, returns to the city and reveals that she is Pashka’s real mother. The reunion begins on a tense note, and only grows more emotionally frayed with time as the three characters move into a cramped apartment and begin to test each other’s limits in a series of increasingly extreme power plays. That their co-dependency is toxic is evident to both of them, but they feel bound together by life experience, fragile temperaments, and shattered dreams. As long as the pair remains in contact, they are doomed to unhappiness, but their intimacy becomes too intense for either one to consider separation a possibility.
Although the sadistic antics of both characters are initially intriguing, their portrayals too often lapse into the realm of the ridiculous, as incidents of cruelty begin to lose psychological grounding, and start to feel like juvenile provocation. Furthermore, the film’s treatment of World War II is strangely apolitical, refusing to engage with the wider social issues of Leningrad’s involvement with the war, and instead treating it as a vague and abstract period of widespread violence. Balagov appears to be more interested in using the historical conflict as a backdrop to the character-driven drama in the foreground, which neuters the film’s thematic thrust.
There’s no doubt that Beanpole is a gorgeous film, yet its very tastefulness becomes a hindrance. Its airless, hermetically sealed style is suffocating (and not in an interesting way), with the stately rhythm, dialed-down soundscape, muted performances, lengthy tracking shots, and carefully composed tableaux seeming less like purposeful aesthetic choices, and more like an opportunistic attempt to cultivate an air of studied artfulness. Perhaps a looser, more exuberant style would have been a better fit for this script.